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Making a Difference

Neighborhoods of poverty, crime – perfect place for Peace Camp, Sister Val says

In order to transform the lives of young people, Sister Valerie Zottola knows she must reach far beyond the marble walls of Mount St. Peter Church, a thriving congregation of middle and upper-middle class parishioners in New Kensington.

The magnificent church towers high above the Allegheny River and overlooks the poorest neighborhoods in Westmoreland County. Approximately one-half of the New Kensington/Arnold residents are below the poverty level, according to U.S. Census data.  The high school drop-out rate is the highest in the county, and substance abuse and crime statistics are just as staggering.

“It’s the perfect setting for Peace Camp,” says Sister Valerie who is preparing for her fourth Peace Camp at Mount St. Peter Parish.

“Because of the demographics of the area, my hope would be that our young campers would learn alternative, nonviolent ways to settle conflicts,” she says.

“My hope for the high school and college counselors is that they will experience a change in attitudes and perceptions related to the poor and racially different communities.”

For the past six years, Sister Valerie’s parish ministry focused on the faith formation of youth and young adults. Recently, she was named Director of Faith Formation, which encompasses service to all parishioners.

Sister Valerie’s enthusiasm for serving and inspiring young people began in the classroom 25 years ago. She taught at Mt. Gallitzin Academy and St. Raphael School, and served as principal of Holy Rosary School and assistant principal at North Catholic High School.

In her bright and cheery office at Mount St. Peter, Sister Valerie is surrounded by a colorful collage of youthful creativity and exuberance - from the peace crane tree to the gallery of hand-made art and photos. She cites an author who contends that young people are all about effecting change through big ideas and life-changing projects. Creating opportunities for this to happen is the exciting part for Sister Valerie.

“Trying to create opportunities where people can begin to develop relationships of mutual respect across racial, social and economic boundaries is the fruit of the gift or charism that I share as a Sister of St. Joseph,” she says.

As an outgrowth of the Sisters of St. Joseph Peace Camp that was established in 2001, the camp at Mount St. Peter partners with the neighboring United Presbyterian Church of New Kensington. In its fourth year, the camp has grown annually, serving children in grades three to eight as well as high school and college counselors. Sister Valerie hopes to attract 50 campers this summer.

In an effort to apply the message of nonviolence to real-life situations beyond the weeklong camp. Sister Valerie last year instituted Peace Camp Pledges. As a result of this new initiative, nearly half of the campers were recognized for fulfilling their peace pledges during an awards ceremony this past February. 

“I have learned stories in which neighborhood youth actually back down from a physical confrontation and used the skills they had learned in Peace Camp,” recalls Sister Valerie. “And, most importantly, they liked this new behavior.”

In addition to Peace Camp, Sister Valerie finds especially fruitful her weekly visits to a local public high school and the Friends in Haiti program where youths from the parish correspond with young Haitians. The youth also have collected clothing items and volunteered at the parish Community Clothes Closet which serves families in need.

Making “church” youth-friendly is a challenge, and Sister Valerie concedes that the “youth group” model no longer proves to be effective. To continue to explore new ways to engage young people in the development of their faith, Sister Valerie established a Youth Ministry Advisory Board of six youths and five adults. 

“I love working with young people,” she says. “I find them especially idealistic and passionate about their dreams. My hope is that I might be one catalyst to them to follow their dreams.”